Following Aaron Nola’s first career complete-game shutout on Sunday against the Cardinals, catcher J.T. Realmuto was asked if the talk around Nola’s legitimacy as an ace motivated the 27-year-old right hander. Realmuto answered the question but took the time to address the prevalent sports talk radio discussion.
“I think that if you looked at Nola, what the last three or four years, I don’t know how you could possibly say he’s not an ace,” Realmuto said. “He’s a top 10 pitcher in baseball, so I’m not sure how that would be considered not an ace.”
He’s right and the numbers back that up. Among starters who have thrown at least 350 innings from 2018 to 2021, Nola came into Sunday ranking in the top 20 in all of these statistics: ERA (10th), FIP (16th), SIERA (15th) fWAR (8th), K% (15th), BABIP (15th), opponent’s batting average (9th), on-base percentage (16th), slugging (7th), OPS (10th), ground ball percentage (8th) and HR/9 (11th). Nola also has the most valuable curveball in the majors in that time span by a wide margin, according to FanGraphs’ pitch value metric.
Most importantly, after today’s game, nobody has thrown more innings since 2018. He narrowly tops the likes of Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke.
It’s impossible to make the argument that Nola is not one of the best pitchers in the game without nitpicking at an aspect of his game that doesn’t matter in the conversation.
He’s bad in September.
It’s something that he admits is a problem. He has a career 4.28 ERA in the final month of the regular season. Of his 22 career outings in September, half of them have consisted of Nola throwing at least six innings and surrendering three runs or less. A few bad outings are what’s driving up his ERA in that month. He allowed at least five earned runs in five career September starts. Perhaps his outcomes in September are more extreme than he’d like them to be, but it shouldn’t take him out of the ace discussion.
And if you want to talk about that Rays game from 2020, it’s important to mention that the offense scored zero runs.
He’s not consistent.
Since 2018, Nola has thrown at least seven innings of one-run ball or less 22 times, which is tied for fourth among major-league pitchers (teammate Zack Wheeler ranks second behind deGrom with 26). If you’d want to lower the bar and see which pitchers are the best bet to give you six innings on a given night in the last four years, Nola is tied for seventh with Wheeler and Clayton Kershaw (56) for that honor. He also ranks eighth behind Shane Bieber in double-digit strikeout games (15) since 2018.
“I would say it’s people outside of the game of baseball are the ones that view it that way,” Realmuto said. “People in the clubhouse and people on the field know that he is an ace on this team and on other teams. You just look at the guy’s résumé and he gets outs and he shows up consistently. I’m not really sure where that stipulation comes from, but it’s not from people that know baseball.”
If you turn on sports radio in the car and the topic of conversation happens to be baseball, there’s a good chance you’ll hear about how terrible analytics are and how baseball isn’t what it used to be for whatever reason. In Philadelphia, the best pitcher playing professionally happens to be a rejection of the modern-day pitcher.
Nola doesn’t give a damn what his spin rates are and you won’t catch him hanging out at Driveline in the offseason. He’s an avid user of film study, but he admits that he doesn’t look at his pitch usage. He relies solely on his preparation and feel for the moment, which believe it or not, might be a little old school.
He’s what modern-day baseball skeptics want in a pitcher, so why does this subsection of Philadelphia fans and media alike reject Nola? It’s probably because Nola is compared to Phillies aces that came before him, namely Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. He may never be as good as all three of them when they were in their respective peaks, but Nola, at age 27, has already carved out a Phillies legacy that rivals Halladay, Lee and Hamels.
Maybe it’s a lack of playoff success. It’s not his fault that his team has underperformed relative to expectations in recent years. He’s under team control until 2023 with a pretty good likelihood that the team will try to re-sign him when the time comes. If not this year, Nola will have a chance to prove himself in October at some point.
If not with the Phillies, he’ll do it with another team. It’s revisionist history, but if Matt Klentak never signed him to a four-year, $45 million extension before the 2019 season, Nola would be a free agent after this season. At his age and with his résumé, Nola is looking at a deal that’ll easily surpass $200 million on the market. He can still probably reach that number anyway following the 2023 season if he keeps up his production.
Teams do not usually give “decent No. 2 or No. 3 starters” almost a quarter of a billion dollars on the open market.
On Sunday, Nola did say that he hears his detractors.
“No, it does not bother me,” Nola said. “I’m going to go out and pitch my game and go pitch for the team.”
On Sunday, Nola allowed only two hits through nine innings, striking out 10 and walking none. According to our own Jonny Heller, it’s the first time a Phillies pitcher has allowed two runs or fewer while striking out at least 10 batters in a complete game since Halladay’s perfect game in 2010.
Like Halladay, Nola relies on getting ahead of the count, movement, changing eye levels and having multiple plus pitches. He doesn’t possess the high 90s fastball that leaves him more room for error like a lot of the best pitchers do, but he works with what he has.
Nola was nearly perfect on Sunday. To beat major-league hitters, perfection is sometimes necessary. Some days, he’ll be far from that but throughout the years, we’ve learned that it’s a safe bet to expect Nola to be more perfect than flawed.
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